By Beth © 2005
Brothers AU (Seven, sorry folks, mostly Ezra)
Notes: This is the second story; you'll want to have read The Way Home before this one. It starts just a couple of months after the previous story ends. Enjoy!
This story is dedicated to the farmers and ranchers who lose their lives every year and don't get an ounce of recognition.
Special Thanks: To Anna for her great suggestions and awesome ideas! And to everyone who's been getting on me to finish this story! You owe it to yourselves for pushing me to get it done, so thanks!
Please send comments and suggestions to email@example.com
Chris looked at the unfamiliar ceiling. The bed lacked the comforts of his own and the lingering smells of Ella's perfume hung vicariously in the room. Sunlight peaked in through the crease in the window drapes, a sure sign that he was already late to work.
Ella reached and gently traced his strong masculine jaw with her finger. She smiled when he turned to look at her. "You need a shave," she said.
Chris nodded. He looked at the woman he now shared a bed with; the way her eyes danced, the gentle curl of her brown hair, and the soft turn of her lips when she smiled. He enjoyed everything about her, but he could not place his thumb on what disturbed him about his situation.
"What're you thinking?" she asked, allowing the sheet to drop past her shoulders, exposing her breasts.
Chris sighed: "I shouldn't be here," he said, sitting up. He looked at his clothing and the badge resting on the nightstand. He ran his fingers through his hair and briefly rested his elbows on his bare knees.
"You worry too much," Ella said with a smile. "When do I get to meet the rest of your brothers?"
Chris stood and slipped into his pants. "You know Buck and Nathan."
"But not the others."
"How about my making dinner for you and the others?" she asked, rolling onto her belly.
"Don't rush this, Ella," he said, quickly slipping into his shirt.
"I'm not rushing anything," she said. "Dinner between friends - that's all."
Chris turned and looked at her. "I mean it, Ella."
She smiled and calmly slipped off the bed, allowing the sheet to fall from her back and hips. "How's roast beef and potatoes sound?" She chuckled, stepping into the bathroom.
Chris watched the shadows dance across her form as she walked, feeling guilty for his lust. Slowly, he ran his hand over his face before buckling his holster. He slipped into his boots and opened the door to his real life - the one he wished he could forget, but the one he wanted to remember.
Buck loaded the bailing twine into the hay bailer and quickly slapped the lid shut. He wiped his brow with this forearm and then looked toward the south pasture. He chuckled as JD tried incessantly to catch a young calf. He could hear Vin in the shop pounding iron - probably fixing the slurry wagon. Buck took a deep breath before slipping into the cab of the tractor with the intention of getting some gas.
He could not deny himself the smiles that stretched his cheeks while he thought about his family, brothers that found themselves bonded by blood and sacrifice. Buck was one of the lucky ones, having had the privilege of working with his father, seeing him everyday, allowing Lincoln Larabee to be a dad. JD, Vin, and Ezra weren't as lucky. Josiah too, but at least he had gotten to know the man before his death.
It was a tragedy all around, and one he could not deny. Buck turned off the tractor and jumped out to fill it with gas. Dust bloomed around his feet as he scuffed toward the pump handle. He looked up and noticed Vin through the door of the shop, welding. The kid was diligent enough for the entire family. He looked toward the pasture and found JD bringing his calf in. The young Hereford bellowed for its mother as JD pushed him through the front gate.
Buck chuckled as he finished pumping gas. With harvest season upon them, it was going to challenge everyone's patience, endurance, and tolerance.
Ezra sat at his computer, analyzing the books for the ranch, trying to come up with the money they would need in order to keep the bank from foreclosing. Six thousand was a lot of money for people who didn't have it. Sure, they would have the majority of it come fall, but even then it wouldn't be enough to last them through the year. Even by transferring ownership of the tractors and the larger farm equipment, they'd still owe the government and the bank too much money when the New Year passed.
They needed a miracle, a six thousand dollar miracle.
Ezra rubbed his forehead and quickly reached for his glass of water. It was hot, and the ice he had put in his glass over an hour ago had melted, leaving a ring of moisture on the coaster. It was not easy, searching for something that was not there. He looked up toward the clock, knowing Josiah and Nathan would be getting home soon - if they didn't stop off and share a drink first. Ezra glanced from the clock to the silent piano that rested untouched in the corner of the room. Its elegance and musical potential was as enticing as a finely cured bottle of wine.
Ezra stood, feeling like a child who knew he would be punished if he touched something important. Music had been a part of his life for as long as he could remember. He had sat and watched his mother play her guitar when he was barely old enough to walk, and he had cherished every moment of her time with him when she showed him how to play his own. Every man Maude had been with had a piano, and in some way he had a love of music. He smiled, remembering his high school band, and the poor, yet popular music they had played. At seventeen, he had finally felt as though he belonged, and it was a feeling he yearned to find again.
He sat on the shiny black bench and carefully lifted the guard over the keys. The white ivories called him by name as he carefully ran his fingers over them. He looked out the window, knowing Vin would be in the shop until Buck forced him inside, and it looked as though that would be awhile.
Ezra felt chills run down his back as he pressed on the white keys, listening to the soft music as it echoed and then briefly faded. His fingers, flexible and familiar, pressed the keys with knowing ease. His normally perfect posture lost its shape and he slouched slightly. He seemed to lose track of time and of himself, enjoying the melodic sounds of a slightly out of tune work of art. He moved eyebrows with every note, like the arms of conductor. For a moment he was not a bastard, the questionable brother, or the young man running from his past...he just played the piano, making the keys dance and making himself disappear.
Chris sighed when he saw the familiar red Mercedes coming down the lane. Dust followed like a storm cloud. He parked his truck and slipped out, waiting for Ella to join him. He should have known she would come, despite his warnings not to.
Ella parked her car next to the truck and stepped out, her red cowboy boots, black blouse, and tight blue jeans reminded him why his failings as a man got him into trouble. She smiled and casually reached into the back seat, pulling out several shopping bags. "I was hungry, and I didn't have anyone to eat with tonight."
"I told you no, Ella," Chris replied, more annoyed than angry.
"When have I ever taken no as a final answer?" she replied with a grin. "Besides, I make a mean roast."
Chris nodded and followed her to the door. They could hear the soft music before they entered the house. Ella entered first, impressed with the ability, and curious to who was playing. She carefully placed her bags on the kitchen counter and then stood in the entry to the living room. Chris stepped behind her.
"He plays like he's makin' love to it," Ella said, leaning against the wall.
Ezra jumped when he heard the voices, and quickly slammed the cover down.
Chris was not sure if he was angry, happy, or just confused. He shrugged, not knowing how to respond and walked back into the kitchen. Ella sighed before following.
"So which brother is that one?" she asked, removing a few items from the grocery bags.
"Ezra," Chris said. The last time he had heard that piano being played was when JD's mother had taught them the theme to Star Wars.
"Seven men...I don't know how I'll contain myself."
Chris rolled his eyes and then stuck the heel of his boot into the bootjack and slipped them off. "Don't plan on staying very long tonight," he said. "I have an early day tomorrow."
"I'm just cooking dinner," she replied, grabbing some pans out of the cupboard.
Chris nodded and looked up in time to see Ezra enter the kitchen. Chris turned and quickly introduced the two before taking a seat at the kitchen table. "How're the bills comin'?" he asked.
"The ranch is all but bankrupt," Ezra said. He looked toward the front door and nodded toward Buck, JD, and Vin who were coming in after a long day of chores.
Vin was covered from head to foot in grease. His knuckles bled and his shirtsleeves were rolled up to his elbows. Dirt and sawdust littered his back and his hair. Buck reached and removed a small twig that dangled precariously from the back of Vin's head and tossed it into the ashtray that rested on the edge of the kitchen counter.
"What in the hell are you doin' out there, Vin?" Buck asked.
"Swather's fixed," he said, nodding toward Ella. "Ma'am."
Chris raised his eyebrows. "Everybody, this is Ella. Ella, this is everybody."
The brothers introduced themselves and made light conversation as Ella completed dinner. Chris had disappeared into the study with Ezra to receive an education about farm finances while Buck, Vin, and JD remained in the kitchen talking to the beautiful brunette.
Nathan and Josiah were the last to arrive. Both were exhausted, and both carried files that needed reviewed. They smiled when they entered the kitchen and the smells of pot roast, carrots, potatoes, and fresh rolls filled the air causing their bellies to grumble.
Ella finished setting the table with Chris' mother's china and crystal. She smiled, shook both men's hands, and introduced herself to Josiah.
The seven brothers and Ella gathered around the table. Chairs were scraped against the floorboards and silverware clanged as dinner was quickly served. Ella smiled and giggled like a school girl as she flirted and teased Chris and the others.
Chris looked up and out the window toward the dust that billowed from behind Steven Beal's yellow Ford truck. Vin turned in his seat and watched and then stood to join Chris as he walked outside. Chairs once again scrapped the floor as the brothers left Ella and her food at the table.
"Steven," Chris said, walking to the truck, "what's goin' on?"
With the Ford still running, Steven rested his arm over the lowered window and shook his head. His rusty blonde hair dripped with sweat that had soaked his green John Deere hat. "Harry's dead - "
"What?" Buck asked, stepping beside Chris. He placed his hand on the hood of the truck and waited.
"Looks like he got his foot caught in some bailin' twine while he was workin' that old stationary hay chopper - "
"Son-of-a-bitch, I told him to get rid of that thing - "
" - Buck," Chris said.
Steven continued, "Roy and the boys are up there now - didn't want to move the body until you showed up to okay it. Sally's with Anna, Roy had to give her a sedative to calm her down. She found 'im and then called me." He removed his hat and scratched his crown with the same hand before replacing it. "Thought maybe Nate could come up and check on Anna - we should call her sons - think they're both at the university gettin' ready for school."
Chris nodded and rubbed his jaw: "Get on back, Steven, I'll be up with Nathan in a few minutes. Tell the boys to leave everything the way they found until I get there." He slapped the truck door and stepped back with Buck.
Steven nodded and placed his truck into gear and then slowly drove away. Chris turned and looked toward his brothers. He placed a hand on Buck's shoulder and gently squeezed before heading back to the house. "Nathan, Anna might need some medical attention, maybe Josiah can go up to the house with you and console her. Buck, I'm goin' to need your help gettin' the machinery cleared." He walked past them and grabbed the keys to his Blazer that hung on a nail just inside the door. He turned and looked at Vin, JD, and Ezra. "We'll be back later."
"Can we do anythin'?" Vin asked.
"Make sure the gates are locked and the horses are fed," Buck said, joining Chris in the Blazer, "and stay by the phone."
JD watched them leave, Nathan and Josiah following behind, wishing he knew more. "What's a stationary hay chopper?" He looked toward Vin and then to Ezra.
The scene was horrific, and Chris' two deputies remained by their cars trying their best to keep their composure. Roy, the local paramedic had seen this before, and he knew it would not be the last time. At fifty-five years of age and having been born and bred in Four Corners, he knew how ugly farming and ranching could be. He stood with his arms crossed over his slow growing beer-belly. He wore jeans and a blue uniform shirt with paramedic insignia.
"Roy," Chris said, moving next to him at the scene.
"It's sad to say I've seen things worse than this, but damn if it don't make my stomach turn." He pointed toward Harry's foot. "Looks like he was cuttin' hay bales and tossin' them into the chopper."
Chris nodded and stepped forward to get a better look. He swallowed and clenched his jaw. "This all that's left of him?"
Roy nodded: "He fell forward, his pelvis is all that kept his legs from goin' in - we ain't never goin' to find him all."
Chris agreed and he watched Nathan and Josiah walk to the house. "How's Anna?"
"A mess, had to sedate her to get her to calm down. She said she went lookin' for him when he didn't show for dinner - and you knew Harry, he was never late for a meal...to be truthful, Chris, I wouldn't doubt it a bit if he had a heart attack and just...fell in."
Chris nodded and stepped back. Blood had splattered and spread around the machine, Harry Donovan's legs and pelvis remained unmoving at the mouth. His silver 1969 rodeo belt buckle shinned against the descending sun, peppered with blood.
"We should bag up what we can and send him to Reno for the coroner to finalize cause of death - I'll write up my report as accidental." Chris ran his fingers through his hair and watched as Harry's neighbors gathered. He took a deep breath and turned to face the growing crowd. "For those of you with strong stomachs, grab some gloves from Roy here and you can help us collect Harry," he looked toward the others, "the rest of you, Anna's goin' to need some help managin' this place - the cows will need to be milked, the calves fed, if someone could help with the general chores...." he paused, the scene eating at his gut "...tomorrow we'll meet here and plan on finishin' harvest, Harry has about 75 acres of hay that needs to be baled and stacked, and then the corn needs to be cut - if we all pitch in we'll finish up Harry's place first and then we'll make our rounds - Dave, I know you plant early to get your crop in earlier than the others so we'll handle your farm when we're done with Harry's, the rest of you get together and decided who'll be next - " He had known Harry, Anna, and their boys for more than 20 years, and he had helped farm most of their land. He knew it almost as well as his own.
The group quickly dispersed, heading to where they could be the most help. Chris nodded toward Buck and together they started the clean up. They were joined by three others, Roy, and two of Harry's best friends.
JD had fallen asleep on the sofa, his lips slightly parted and his head turned toward the back cushions. Vin had tossed a blanket over him, and turned the lamp off. Both Ezra and Vin sat at the kitchen table in silence, neither finding it necessary to speak. Their coffees had cooled, and Ezra continued to spin his cup while looking toward the horse barn. Vin leaned back and crossed his arms over his chest, his elbows poking through the holes of his blue work shirt.
"What'd you think of Ella?" Vin asked.
Ezra shrugged and pushed himself off the table using his elbows. "She's...not what I would have expected from Chris."
Vin nodded: "I know we've only known him a couple of months but...Ella...she don't quite fit - Hell, she flirted with everyone at the table...she had her eye on you."
Ezra shook his head: "Her infatuation lies completely with Chris, if anything, she's in too much need of attention." He raised his eyebrows and shook his head. "Not unlike someone else I know."
They both looked out the window as headlights came into view. Two sets bounced with every pit and rivet on the dirt lane. The dogs rushed to greet them, tails wagging, sticks clamped tightly between jaws. Buck slammed his truck door shut and then reached for a stick; he tossed it as far as he could and watched the dogs rush for it. He shook his head before following Chris and the others to the house.
They looked tired, warn out, and drawn as though they had worked hard labor for 12 hours. Spots of blood marred Chris and Buck's shirts and pants. Josiah excused himself and went immediately to his room. Chris dumped the coffee and made a new pot, while Buck let his dog inside and they both walked down stairs.
"Everything all right?" Vin asked, looking toward Nathan and Chris.
"We've known Harry, Anna, and their boys for...20 years," Nathan said, "he was a good guy so it's going to take a while for things to get back to normal." He opened the cupboard and removed the aspirin. "I've got four appointments in the morning, Chris, when I'm done I'll be out to help." He finished his glass of water and walked slowly to his room.
Chris nodded and watched as the coffee dripped slowly from the spout. "I'm goin' to need some help keepin' things goin'." He turned and leaned against the counter. "I was hopin', Vin, that you could help Mike from down the road with servicin' the machinery - way I figure it, we'll have 3 or 4 swathers on Harry's alfalfa, and 5 combines choppin' his corn. Buck and JD can supervise coverin' the silage - they'll be 3 big tractors for that job." He paused and rubbed his head. "Josiah and Nathan are goin' to drive truck..." he looked at Ezra, "I was hopin' you could drive as well - I'll ride with you the first couple of times, show you how it's done." He watched Ezra nod before he continued, "Nettie and Cassy are goin' to be doin' a lot of the chores, milkin', feedin' that sort of thing - I figure it'll take us about four or five weeks to get through all of it."
"Five weeks for one farm?" Ezra asked.
"Four or five, for several farms - we can't pull every farmer off their land to help with Harry's place and not expect to help them with theirs, harvest is difficult enough on time, much less if you're late gettin' it up." Chris turned and shut the coffee maker off. "You should both get some sleep, we're startin' at sunup." He reached for the coffeepot and decided against it. He walked toward the stairs leading to the basement and paused. "I really appreciate your help - so will everyone else around here." He grabbed the hand railing and made his descent.
"Hope you like bein' hot, Ezra," Vin said, getting to his feet.
Ezra chuckled, stood, and headed toward his bedroom, leaving Vin with a questioning look on his face.
It looked like an estate sale. Farmers and ranchers drove their trucks, tractors, and equipment onto the property, parking on any available spot. The sun was just cresting the horizon, and everyone available was there, ready to work.
Steven motioned with his long arms for everyone to gather, while Sally helped Anna onto the flatbed wagon that her husband had used to move his corrugated pipes. She dabbed her eyes and smiled. She looked tired. Her hair, cut short, was fraying about her face making her look even more drawn.
Anna cleared her throat and said, "I want to thank everyone for comin'." She smiled tightly, trying to hold her emotions, but like a band of wild horses contained in a rope fence, she was failing. "Harry would be so overwhelmed with all this support." She paused and clasped Sally's hand for support. "As you head off grab a sack lunch, Nettie, Sally, and I worked last night makin' them and Guy brought thermoses full of his special brewed coffee and his famous donuts for everyone. I wanted to let everyone know that if you get too hot or need a break, come on up to the house and cool off - I don't want anyone gettin' sick. We'll have dinner ready for you all tonight." She wiped her cheeks. "I thank you, and my boys will be home later today, but they wanted me to thank you as well." She turned and braced her hands on Josiah's strong shoulders as he helped her to the ground.
Farmers talked and grabbed bottles of water and lunches before heading toward their tractors. Engines roared to life and yellow pollen and dust billowed. Chris pointed toward the truck he and Ezra would be driving, and then waved to Josiah as they headed to work. Vin shook Mike's hand and they walked together toward the shop where one tractor was already needing work. JD and Buck walked toward the silage pit.
"I'll drive the first couple rounds," Chris said, opening the truck door. The seats were well worn and sections were missing, chewed by dogs, or ripped by children. Dust, leaves, and twigs littered the seats, dash, and floor.
"Are you serious?" Ezra asked, looking at his hand in disgust after wiping the seat.
Chris chuckled and slipped inside. He moved the long awkward gear shift into neutral before turning and motioning toward Ezra to join him. "You'll get used to it, if you give it time."
"I'm not a farmer, Chris - and I've never claimed - "
" - I know, Ezra, but we'll need your help for a few weeks. Get in."
The radio was broken and dangled precariously from wires hanging from the dash, and a "McGovern for President" bumper sticker had been applied to the windshield. Age and weather had taken its toll, leaving the once white color a tainted brown.
Ezra tossed his sack lunch between himself and Chris and resorted to seating himself. The truck roared to life, and black smoke escaped the muffler.
"You couldn't have found me something less foul?"
Chris chuckled as he shifted the gears while heading toward the north cornfield. "Believe it or not, Ezra...this is the cleanest job."
Ezra frowned and then slumped, sighing when a plume of dust billowed around his shoulders.
Mike could fix an axel with duct tape and bailing twine if he had to, and Vin stood aside shaking his head, while watching a magician at work. The truck's bumper had been welded to the frame before and after striking a cement barrier. Manure had been splattered against the frame and dried in place, acting like glue. Crusted oil, grease, and dust filled cracks and rested untouched on the hood and footholds.
"I graduated a year before Chris," Mike said, greasing the hydraulic lifts.
"You play ball with 'im?"
"No, I was usually workin' on the farm - not a lot of extra time for sports." He moved to the truck door, leaned over the seat and pressed a button and watched as the bed of the truck returned to its horizontal position. "Your dad and mine were good friends, they were on the irrigation committee and then the fair committee - think they were always tryin' to outdo each other."
Vin continued to dump old oil into a barrel. "Your dad still around?"
"Yep," Mike slammed the door shut, "he's fixin' fence. He'll probably be here later this afternoon drivin' truck." He reached for his water bottle and wiped his brow. "What'd you think about farmin' - I know your dad loved it."
Vin shrugged: "As long as I'm keepin' my hands busy, I don't mind it."
Mike shrugged grabbing his water bottle: "You'll never have a shortage of things to do." He tossed his water bottle onto the stack of straw bales and watched as another farmer drove in with half a load of silage. "See what I mean."
Ezra bounced, braced his hands on the passenger side door and dashboard. The truck did not have seatbelts, and if it had at one time they would have been more deadly than driving without them. Shocks were an entirely different story.
"Sorry," Chris said, waiting for Joe to finish his load. "Think you can handle this? It's easy, as long as you keep your focus."
Ezra nodded and slipped out of the truck, nearly spraining his ankle when he stepped wrong into a corrugate. Chris slapped his shoulder in reassurance and then slipped into the passenger seat. He chuckled when Ezra went to shift and ground the gears. "This isn't exactly a Porche."
"Never said it was."
It was hot and miserable watching as trucks dumped loads of silage into the pit where three different tractors pushed and smashed the chopped corn into a large pile. JD, Buck, and a few others continued to spread black plastic and tires over what had already been conditioned.
JD tried to wipe black smudges from his hands, as the smell of rotting corn and mud sloshing from within the tires. He hadn't understood when Buck said this particular job was disgusting, until now. He would have to burn his clothes, if they did not ignite before the day was done...and his boots...dear God...his boots. He looked down, noticing the slime of last years silage clinging to him in chunks not unlike cow's shit after 24 hours on lush grass.
"What's the matter?" Buck asked, wiping his brow with his handkerchief. He smiled wickedly.
"This is not what I signed up for."
"There wasn't a signup sheet, kid. Get used to it," Buck pointed down the road. "We've got three trucks comin' in for a dump, and by the looks of it..." he chuckled and shook his head, "...looks like Ezra's drivin' the lead...Poor bastard."
JD looked and chuckled when the truck Ezra was driving bounced, squeaked, and the grinding of gears echoed. "Thought Chris was goin' to show him how to drive that thing."
"So did I," Buck said, an image of Chris' face coming into view, his right eye would be swollen shut and black from striking the truck door. He would never be able to walk again, not with a spring enema. "I have got to see this." He turned and sprinted down the small hill, looking like an unquardinated football player at his first time through the tires.
Ezra parked the truck in line, knuckles were white and his breathing had become erratic. Though naturally good hearing, he seemed to have lost all ability to hear from his left side. "I did not ask for this particular assignment."
Chris pressed his lips together and nodded: "No shit." He released his hands from the door, feeling his knuckles crack and muscles relax as the circulation intensified.
"What the fuck was that?" Buck laughed, grabbing the door and pulling it open. "I thought for sure you had the Denver Broncos in the back of this thing - with the cheerleaders."
Ezra rolled his eyes and leaned back, feeling the tension in his shoulders decrease. "I have never driven a stick-shift of this archaic arrangement before."
"I'll trade you jobs, Ezra," JD said, stepping behind Buck.
"You haven't even driven a stick before." Buck turned back toward Ezra and Chris. "Now get back to work you pansy asses, and get this truck dumped." He smiled and slammed the door shut.
"I'll pay you twenty bucks to run him over," Chris said, rubbing his head.
"Doubt I could find him," Ezra replied, stretching his neck to look over the hood toward the ground.
Vin had learned more in four weeks working with Mike than he had his entire life as a mechanic. Bailers, swathers, combines, trucks, and even a couple milk pumps now had his thumb prints imbedded in grease. He had learned two very important lessons: anything can be fixed with bailing twine, and long hair could be a hazard. His knuckles were callused, bruised, bloody, and sore, but damn if he wasn't happy about it. He had a farmer's tan; dark face, neck, and arms to his elbows. He was pasty white beneath his shirt. JD had been smart, tossing his shirt aside, but only after swearing on his life that he would wear sunscreen. Nathan had stood by and waited until the youngest was covered in the stuff. Buck had opted to wear his shirt, knowing how sticky sweat and lotion could get after spending hours in the sun on black plastic and surrounded by black tires.
Chris had been directed to drive combine while Ezra got the hang of driving truck. After only a few mishaps, he caught on. He had grabbed his radio and listed to county music - though not his favorite, it was tolerable in comparison to talk radio.
During harvest, Nathan's appointments dwindled except for a few emergencies, most consisting of cuts and bruises - there was the occasional severe emergencies, nail punctures, severed fingers, and broken bones, but for the most part, the beginning of harvest had been relatively calm. Josiah found his need as a therapist even less necessary than a regular doctor. However, his young secretary made sure to book him for months afterward.
It was uncanny how the town died down. The stores closed early, except the auto parts warehouse and the only fast food joint. Chris spent his mornings driving truck, and his afternoons driving combine. His deputies and Marcie held the fort down, warning out-of-town speeders while keeping the gas station in supply of coffee.
Three days after Harry's death, everything stopped. Every farmer and rancher within the county arrived at the cemetery and showed their support. Four hours later, corn was being chopped, hay baled and stacked, cows milked, potatoes and onions harvested - it was a never ending cycle.
Chris tossed his hat on the table and slipped his boots off using the bootjack next to the door. His gray shirt was brown at the collar, beneath his arms, and down his back. The kitchen smelled of sweat, dirt, shit, and engine fuel. Vin sat at the table eating a sandwich with blackened hands. Ezra sat across from him, his cheek resting on a fisted hand, eyes closed. JD had finished his meal, but he stared blankly at The Guernsey Breeders Journal.
"The day's only half over with, boys," Chris said, glancing at Buck though the window, still tossing twine into the hay bailer.
Ezra cracked an eye.
JD flipped a page of the journal and reached for an apple.
"I talked it over with Buck and Tom and we're goin' to split up. With Nettie's place, our place, and the Webber's still needin' to get finished," he walked to the sink and washed his hands then grabbed some bread and made himself a sandwich, "it should cut down on the time. If we get the hay up before the end of the week, we may be able to pull off another cuttin'."
Vin wiped his mouth and tossed his napkin on his plate. He grabbed a handful of cut apples and proceeded to finish them. "How many more acres need to be cut...as far as the corn goes?"
Chris grabbed a soda from the fridge and then took a seat at the table, his plate piled high. "We've got 123, but we'll cut that last because we got it in the ground late - with all the crap that was goin' on around here. Nettie's got 34, not a lot, but a good day's work. Nick Webber's got another 85 or so - his ground's mostly tied up alfalfa right now."
Nathan and Josiah entered, banging their boots and knocking dirt onto the floor. They chuckled and shook their heads. Both looked just as dusty as the others. Nathan tossed his sweat soaked handkerchief onto the counter next to the half filled ash trays. Josiah reached for plates and bowls, while Nathan grabbed glasses and silverware.
"Hard work is good for the spirit," Josiah said, grabbing the stew he had made the day before. He placed it on the stove to warm.
"So's church," JD said, closing the journal, "except you don't sweat and stink in church - or at least you shouldn't."
"Kid's got a point," Vin said, and then finished his glass of milk.
"I really hope you didn't have any antifreeze on your hands before you ate," Nathan said, glancing at Buck through the window.
"Believe it or not, Nate, these hands are clean."
Ezra curled his lip and removed himself from the table.
"Where're you goin'?" JD asked.
"To find a portable CD player," Ezra said, placing his dishes in the sink.
"What's wrong with the old radio?" Nathan asked, placing several slices of bread on a plate.
"I can only listen to 'she thinks my tractor's sexy' a minimal amount of times before I decide to blow my head off to escape the ritualistic mundane twang of Country Music."
"That's Buck's favorite song," JD said, grinning.
"I'm not surprised."
"Hell, Ezra," Chris said, "you play that shit you listen to very close to Nettie's cows you'll dry 'em all up." He took a bite from his sandwich, ignoring the mayonnaise at the corner of his mouth.
"And that would be bad because...?" Ezra opened the utility drawer looking for batteries.
"Because a pissed off Nettie Wells is more deadly than that bull she's got in our pen outside." Nathan said, taking his plate to the table.
"I don't know, Chris," JD said, grabbing his dirty dishes and heading to the sink. "I was helpin' Casey milk the other day and damn if those ol' cows didn't stick around and finish listening to Motley Crew."
"Motley Crew?" Ezra asked, postponing his search for double As.
"What?" JD placed his dishes in the sink and started rinsing. "They're cool!"
"They're awful!" Ezra returned to his search.
Chris chuckled and wiped his face with his napkin. "Even I'll admit they're not that good, JD...and I listened to KISS."
Ezra visibly paled. "I feel ill." He closed the drawer and left.
JD laughed: "Did you really?"
"Yes, he did," Nathan said, "and he painted his face to look like the lead singer's when he was seven when Dad took us trick or treating."
JD snorted: "Really?"
"I've got pictures to prove it." He reached for a piece of bread and slathered it in butter. "I was a doctor, and Buck went as..." he frowned, trying to remember.
"Clint Eastwood from The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly," Chris said.
"That's still one of my favorites," Buck said, entering the house. His face was dusted with yellow pollen, and a smear of axel grease ran from the right side of his nose to his ear. "Two Mules is my all time Favorite though." He grabbed a piece of bread from the table and shoved it into his mouth before reaching the sink to wash his hands. "Phil's goin' to finish bailin' Nettie's hay this afternoon an' I'm goin' to follow with the bailer - should have most of it done by tomorrow afternoon." He grabbed a bowl and started dishing himself some stew.
Chris nodded and reached for his police radio when he heard his deputy. He removed himself from the kitchen.
Nathan shook his head: "That's what he's good at - avoiding his dishes."
Buck chuckled, grabbing a couple slices of bread before taking his seat at the table. "Yep."
Chris reentered the house and slipped his badge on, then strapped his weapon to his waist. "I'll be back after a bit, some kids were tryin' to pass a stackwagon goin' 80mph on Travis Lane."
Buck winced, and then shoved a spoonful of stew into his mouth.
"Need any help?" Nathan asked, pushing his plate.
"No," Chris said, grabbing his truck keys, "nobody's hurt."
Ezra entered the kitchen in time to see Chris leave, having changed shirts, and he grabbed a baseball hat to help keep the sun out of his eyes. His dark glasses wrapped around his eyes, giving him the look of a skier. With an armload of CDs and a small portable player, he headed toward the door.
"You're a prude, Ezra." Vin chuckled.
"I'm educated," Ezra replied, "and I have taste."
"That's debatable," Vin said, ducking as Ezra threw a CD at him. Vin caught it before it struck the wall. "Steven Lynch... Who the fuck is Steven Lynch?"
Ezra chuckled, opening the screen door. "Broaden your horizons."
JD stood to the right of the haystack as Buck backed another load in. The last of Nettie's hay, and then they would start on their own tomorrow. They were fortunate enough to get done early, miss the rain that was due and be able to get a fourth cutting of alfalfa after they got the third up. JD looked toward the cornfield and chuckled, feeling for Ezra's ass as the truck bounced while he drove over corrugates.
The stack-wagon beeped and then the bed slowly started to lift. JD moved out of the way as Buck slowly backed up in line with the other bales. He heard the milking parlor and saw Casey with her long whip, wearing shorts, knee high boots and a tank top start to corral the cows, most having waited at the gate. Her Shepard nipped at the heels of the stragglers.
In the large cornfield across the street, JD could see two trucks waiting for another to fill with silage as another farmer chopped corn. Two other combines were going as well, and Josiah and Nathan were slowly moving their trucks after dumping their loads into the large pits. Four tractors slowly moved up and down the mound, while teenagers and adults worked feverishly covering the goods with heavy black plastic and tires.
Buck had been teaching him about hay, when to cut, when not to, when to bale, to stack, and when to call it quits. It was bizarre to think how complicated it was, the entire process. Buck was up at three in morning bailing hay, because there was enough moisture to keep the leaves from falling off. He would quit as the sun started its heat wave and turn to stacking.
JD had never seen anyone work harder - except maybe his mother. These men he found himself related to, and the extended family of farmers, were up at the crack of dawn and in bed after dark. There were no nine to five days, five days a week. No holiday weekends, or paid vacations, most of these men and women were lucky to see a lunch break.
Buck drove the stackwagon forward and replaced the bed of the wagon to its horizontal position. He stepped out of the cab and wiped his brow with a handkerchief. Dark circles were beneath his eyes, and his jaw was drawn. He looked tired.
"Was that the last load?" JD asked, running his hand along the bright red runner of the wagon.
"Of Nettie's," Buck said, taking a seat on the cab step.
JD placed a cold bottle of water against his forehead and tossed Buck another. "After all the hay, corn, and stuff get harvested, what do we do next?"
Buck chuckled: "We never run out of things to do, kid - and if you do, we're in a world of hurt."
JD nodded and looked toward the parlor as a couple of cows exited and walked slowly down the ally way. Gavon, Harry's eldest son, finished cutting bales of hay.
"Come on," Buck said, getting to his feet, "let's get back to work."
Geoff was a short, stocky man who knew more about chopping corn than anyone else in the area. He had done it for years. He loved it. He and his wife owned a small farm just north of the Larabee ranch, raising a few cattle, and farming some land. He worked everyday during the summer months, usually for other farmers. He was known for having a good sense of humor, a quick whit, and supportive of the local high school where his wife worked as an English Teacher.
He drove his tractor while pulling the corn combine. It was the same rig he had used since his father had left it to him. He liked it better than the newer models, saying it cut closer to the root and wasted less silage. He was stuck in his ways, something that most could understand if not relate to.
Ezra drove behind. Both truck windows were rolled down, allowing a slight breeze to enter the cab. He had given up on staying cool, but thankful the humidity was not nearly as bad as it could be. The CD player skipped as he crossed a corrugate, but it quickly returned to normal. He applied the brakes when Geoff stopped his tractor. He stepped out of the cab and Ezra cut the truck's engine.
"Everything all right?" Ezra asked, stepping out of the truck. He wiped his brow and stepped forward, listening to the rage of the combine. A few partials of corn sprayed from the dinosaur type mouth that was positioned high enough in the air to spray silage into the bed of the vehicle.
"Think somethin's stuck," Geoff said, wiping his brow and removing his hat with the same hand. He jumped onto the back of the monster and looked inside the engine, searching for an idea of what the problem could be. "Ezra!"
"Yeah?" Ezra placed his hand on his forehead like the visor of a cap.
"Look underneath that shaft, let me know if anything falls out when I kick at this!"
Ezra nodded, barely understanding him over the roar of the tractor and combine. He braced his hands on his knees and waited as Geoff kicked the frame above the blades.
Ezra shook his head: "Maybe Vin and Mike can take a look?"
Geoff shook his head, squinting against the sun. "They've got enough to do." He kicked again, praying the trapped silage would release from the confines of the machine.
Ezra nodded and turned toward the truck to grab his bottled water. He dropped the plastic when he heard the fierce cry.
Geoff kicked again at the small box above the blades when a torn portion of his jeans reached a blade. It pulled him in. He screamed as the blades mangled his leg, sucking him in. He braced his hands on each side of himself and every muscle screamed and flexed as he fought against the motor. Sweat streamed down his face, blood splattered against him. He looked up as Ezra rushed for the combine.
"SHUT IT OFF!" Geoff yelled.
Ezra ignored him and made a move to jump onto the back of the combine.
"DON'T GRAB ME!" Geoff yelled. "SHUT IT OFF!"
Ezra rushed for the tractor cab and flipped the switches and ran to the back of the combine. He pulled Geoff from the back of the beast. Geoff's right leg was gone to his knee. Ezra removed his shirt and applied it to the leg.
Geoff's hands shook as he tried to stay focused.
Ezra removed his belt and tightened it around the leg. He rushed for the truck and grabbed his cell, oblivious to the blood covering his hands, chest, neck, and pants. He punched the numbers and waited. "FUCK!" he yelled, when his phone died. He rushed back for Geoff. "Do you have a phone?" he knelt beside him. "Geoff, do you have a phone?"
Gritting his teeth, Geoff shook his head. "This is farm country, kid." He gasped, and dug his hands into the ground. The pain wasn't registering...not yet.
Ezra wiped his face, his heart racing, ideas flooding his mind. "Shit!" He ran to the truck and grabbed the duct tape from behind the seat and taped the horn down.
JD frowned: "BUCK!" he yelled, stepped over the tires and looking toward the fields.
Buck continued up the mound driving the tractor. He paused when JD waved him down. "What?"
"Cut your engine."
Buck shrugged and turned the key, keeping his foot on the clutch. "What?" He released his foot and set the brake.
"I hear somethin'."
Buck waved to Tim and Paul who turned their tractors off as well. They all paused, and slowly adjusted their positions when they realized what they were hearing.
"It's comin' from the south corn field," Tim said, stepping from his perch.
Buck's frown disappeared as realization hit. "Shit," he jumped from his tractor and ran toward his pickup truck. JD followed. Tim and Paul pursued, motioning for the hands feeding the cows to phone for an ambulance.
JD held on for dear life as the truck moved in every direction while Buck crossed the corrugates at too high a speed. They could see the truck, then the tractor, and then the combine. The heat of the midday sun relentlessly bore down, taking its toll on animals, plants, and man.
"There!" JD pointed, seeing Ezra's bare back. He was hunched over something.
Buck slammed on his brakes, the truck skidding, sending dirt upward. He jumped from the truck and rushed toward the site. "EZRA!"
Ezra turned, his jaw permanently clenched, nose flared, brow furrowed. "I can't stop the bleeding." He kept his hand pressed to the leg, fingers stretched over his shirt to cover the wound.
Buck knelt, removed his shirt and applied it to the injury. He forced Ezra's hand away. "How're you doin', Geoff?"
Geoff pressed his lips and nodded: "Always knew...that ol' bitch would get me." His words slurred, and the normal pink color of his cheeks had faded.
"Roy's on his way," Tim said, slipping beside Buck. "Think we should try and get him closer to the road?" He placed his hand on Geoff's shoulder.
JD stood back, gathering his strength. He watched as Tim, Buck, and Paul kept Geoff calm. Ezra had backed away from the scene. He sat on the ground, leaning against the wheel-well of the truck, his elbows on his knees. JD moved to the truck and grabbed the old blanket Buck kept behind the seat for emergencies and laid it out in the bed of the pickup. He looked up as Chris, Nathan, Nettie, and several others arrived. Nathan went to work, and organized Geoff's move from the ground to the bed of the truck. Buck slowly drove, arriving at the road just as Roy arrived with his ambulance.
Nathan stayed with Geoff and it only took moments before he was loaded into the ambulance and heading toward the hospital. Buck slipped into his truck after speaking with Tim, who then got back into his own vehicle and headed down the road.
"What happened?" Nettie asked, stepping off the mule after turning off the engine. She saw Ezra sitting on the ground leaning against the truck. Buck and JD had just driven back from the road and Chris was organizing his thoughts - pacing between the tractor and truck.
Buck slammed the pickup door. "Tim went to get Ada and then he'll take her to the hospital to be with Geoff." He looked at Nettie and briefly explained what happened.
Nettie clenched her jaw, nodded, and then slowly rubbed her hands on her biceps.
"He's on his way to the hospital now - Roy said he'd call and let us know how he's doin'." Buck ran his fingers through his hair.
"We'll finish up out here, Nettie," Chris said.
"This's my farm, Chris," Nettie said, wiping her cheeks and slipping her hands into her pockets, "I've a responsibility to the men workin' it."
"Nettie - "
" - I should contact the Webbers, let them know what's goin' on - they've got about 15 men on their crew right now, a lot of 'em knew - know Geoff." Nettie turned and headed back to the mule. "You boys should get home." Her eyes were red and had the beginnings of tears. She would go back to the house, make a few phone calls, and then place the weight of the problem on her shoulders. She would find fault with herself.
Chris watched her leave, ran his hand through his hair and sighed. "What happened?" he asked, looking toward Ezra.
Ezra stood, keeping his position next to the truck. He felt their eyes on him, the pressure of explaining the unexplainable. "I didn't see it - "
" - You were right here," Chris said.
"Geoff had stopped, said there was something wrong - I got out of the truck and reached for my water and he screamed and when I turned his fucking leg was gone."
"It ain't your fault, Ezra," JD said.
Ezra nodded, but kept his eyes focused on the quartz stone glistening against the late afternoon sun. His jaw was clenched, and his lips pressed into a thin line.
"JD's right, Ezra," Buck said, looking at the blood that had dried in the dirt and on the machinery. It was vicious, the horror of it, and unlike an animal or a person, there wasn't anyone to blame. "We should get back, wait for Nettie to call us with the news, I'm sure Roy will contact her first - same with Ada."
"I need to know what happened - I'm sure you're content with the shit-on-a-farm happens line, but I have to explain this to Ada and her kids - Shit, what if Geoff doesn't make it?" Chris clenched his jaw and shook his head, looking at the details, but avoiding the larger issues.
"I don't - "
" - You don't know what, Ezra? You were the only one here when it happened, the truck isn't goin' to sit down with me over a fuckin' cup of coffee and explain to me the shit that just went down - "
"He left the motor runnin' and was kickin' it, Chris, is that what you want to know? The fuckin' piece of shit machinery grabbed his leg and sucked him in - and he screamed for me to shut it off - that's what happened! There wasn't any big scene, just that - "
" - I - "
"Fuck you, Chris, fuck you and the ranch! Fuck Lincoln Larabee and his shit choices in life! I'm not a farmer, never was, never wanted to be one!" Ezra pinched the bridge between his eyes and closed them tight, feeling the pressures of a headache.
"Listen, Ezra - "
"Fuck you, Buck!" Ezra grabbed his water bottle and started to walk toward the house.
"Let me take you home," Buck said, snarling toward Chris.
Ezra ignored him and kept walking.
"I love you like a brother should, Chris, but if the world was goin' to flood and it was left up to you to build an ark, we'd all fuckin' drown." Buck slapped JD on the shoulder and shoved him toward the truck.
Chris placed his hands on his hips and watched them leave. He watched the dust billow behind the truck tires and he watched the crows start to dance along the truck walls. A few farmers honked their horns in support as they headed home to their families, a few waved, and others parked to speak with others who had lived through worse.
"Shit," Chris said, kicking a stone and watching it roll a few feet down the corrugate. "Shit."